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Honoree Headshot

Charles Watson

Chief Executive Officer
Tropical Smoothie Cafe

Location: Atlanta, Georgia
Founded: 1997
Industry: Quick Service Restaurant

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Charles Watson’s entrepreneurial drive was developed through a series of early job experiences sparked at a young age by a deeply rooted work ethic. “My passion for what I do has remained consistent at every stage of my career,” he says. This includes his 13-year journey in leadership at the Tropical Smoothie Cafe, where he was hired as the brand’s first vice president of franchise development, served as the chief development officer, and named CEO in 2018.

What began as a single location on a Destin, Florida, beach in 1997 has grown into a lifestyle brand for people looking for better-for-you alternatives to fast food. With more than 1,200 locations in the U.S. (and 800+ in development), the brand aspires to become the world’s most beloved restaurant brand.

Guided by an aggressive goal of hitting 1,500 locations by the end of 2024, Watson has more than tripled the company’s brand presence, leading to annual sales of more than $1 billion and revenues over $100 million. “It is our goal that Tropical Smoothie Cafe will operate 1,750 locations, with an average unit volume approaching $1.5 million and unit-level (franchisee) profitability averaging 18%, by 2026,” says Watson proudly.

He credits the success to the brand’s innovative, versatile menu and positive values. The industry has taken notice, recognizing Tropical Smoothie Cafe with many awards, including Top Franchise of Veterans (#1 in the Smoothie/Juice category) from Entrepreneur magazine, an Inc. 5000 Fastest-Growing Private Company, one of Black Enterprise magazine’s Top 25 Franchises for Black Entrepreneurs Across Multiple Industries, and the Multi-Unit Franchising Conference Spirit of Franchising Award.

A veteran franchise professional, Watson has worked for several hospitality-related companies, including InterContinental Hotels Group and US Franchise Systems. He serves on the boards of the International Franchise Association and the Certified Franchise Executive program.

To maintain the pace of continuing financial success, Watson recognized that he would need to update the company’s value system. “We needed to expand our thinking beyond the products and services we provide,” he explains. “We landed on a simple phrase with huge aspirations — Inspire Better.” Watson and his team use the phrase to guide their management style, inspiring cafe owners to succeed and helping crew members shine. “Beyond the cafe doors, it means getting out into the community and supporting the schools, churches and neighborhoods that make our community strong.”

For Watson personally, Inspire Better means using his lifelong work ethic to inspire others. “It allows each of us to reach for more in every aspect of our lives,” he says, “to not just strive for good, but to aspire to greatness.”

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I'm football-lover through and through. I was originally a quarterback in high school and had my heart set on the same position for college. However, I ended up being a punter for my alma mater, Cornell. I won't lie, it was a blow to the ego at first, but it taught me what being a role player means and how important every role is to the bigger picture. I learned how to put my best foot forward in everything I do, with the mindset that it is for the good, something bigger than me. That ideology applied to my football team, but it is still prevalent in my business and my personal life to this day.

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